Getting a grip on prions: oligomers, amyloids, and pathological membrane interactions

Annu Rev Biochem. 2009;78:177-204. doi: 10.1146/annurev.biochem.78.082907.145410.


The prion (infectious protein) concept has evolved with the discovery of new self-propagating protein states in organisms as diverse as mammals and fungi. The infectious agent of the mammalian transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) has long been considered the prototypical prion, and recent cell-free propagation and biophysical analyses of TSE infectivity have now firmly established its prion credentials. Other disease-associated protein aggregates, such as some amyloids, can also have prion-like characteristics under certain experimental conditions. However, most amyloids appear to lack the natural transmissibility of TSE prions. One feature that distinguishes the latter from the former is the glycophosphatidylinositol membrane anchor on prion protein, the molecule that is corrupted in TSE diseases. The presence of this anchor profoundly affects TSE pathogenesis, which involves major membrane distortions in the brain, and may be a key reason for the greater neurovirulence of TSE prions relative to many other autocatalytic protein aggregates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology
  • Humans
  • Prion Diseases / metabolism*
  • Prion Diseases / pathology
  • Prions / chemistry
  • Prions / genetics
  • Prions / metabolism*
  • Prions / pathogenicity
  • Protein Folding


  • Prions